Why do people in some societies stay spry well into their 90’s, while in other parts of the world people’s health may begin to deteriorate well before their 70th birthday? Are there secrets to living a long and healthy life? If we want to live longer, energetic, disease-free lives, some might wonder whether there is an optimal longevity formula, a fountain of youth, so to speak. In actuality, scientists say that 30% of your life span is dictated by your genes, and the remaining 70% is attributed to your lifestyle and the influence of environment on your genetic expression. In the U.S., you have a one in five thousand chance of living to 100. But, in a few small areas of the world, those chances are better than good and parallels can be drawn between these very different societies.
Science tells us that the human body has a limited life expectancy of approximately 90 years. Why, then, does the average American reach the end of their capacity for life at a much younger 78 years of age? If, by following a healthy lifestyle, you could reclaim those 12 or more years, would you change your priorities, take better care of yourself, pay more attention to your diet, become more physically active or be more social? Because apparently in three small areas of the world, citizens do exactly that. It’s not at all unusual to find centenarians who reside in Silenus, a small community in the mountains of central Sardinia, Italy, or live on one small island in the archipelago of Okinawa, Japan and in a segment of Seventh Day Adventists residing in Loma Linda, California. Residents of these tiny areas of the globe have some of the longest life expectancies in the world.
Not only do these active residents enjoy extraordinary longevity, they live relatively free of disabling and life shortening chronic diseases. When you hear how they live their everyday lives, you may think, “Hey, that’s no secret. Everyone knows that.” The difference here is that while we may know it, they actually live it and their healthy lifestyles are paying off in healthy years. How many of us could say we look forward to holding our great, great, great grandchild? Some Okinawans can and do. What can we learn from these seemingly ageless societies where people work hard but life is simple? Author Dan Buettner teamed up with the National Institute on Aging and National Geographic magazine to find out.
In the highlands of Sardinia, vigorous centenarians still walk or bike to work each day and are active from dusk to dawn. Their remote mountain villages have helped to preserve a traditional way of life that encourages longevity. They chop wood and hike for miles each day to tend their flocks of sheep. They grow grapes and make their own polyphenol rich wine and grow fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant and fava beans. They drink goat’s milk and eat omega-3 rich local cheese made from the milk of pasture raised sheep. Elderly people live with their extended families and participate in family life, which research shows is life extending for everyone, from grandparents to grandchildren. They drink wine in moderation and socialize with friends on a regular basis.
The Okinawans are among the world’s healthiest and longest lived people. There is no such thing as retirement and they awaken every day with a sense of purpose. The elderly family members are respected for their wisdom and Okinawan women are often respected spiritual leaders, contributing to their reason for living. They garden and spend time outdoors every day, raising colorful vegetables and herbs, high in natural antioxidants. They eat much more tofu than meat, eat small servings and stop eating when they are 80% full. They maintain lifelong social networks and often negotiate life’s ups and downs with friends they have known all their lives.
The Seventh Day Adventist woman of Loma Linda has a life expectancy of 89 years, a full decade longer than the average American woman. And men can expect to live 11 years longer than average. They eat a Bible-based vegetarian diet filled with greens, beans, nuts and seeds. Consistent daily walks are a part of their lifestyle. They take a 24 hour Sabbath each week and focus on family, their religion and nature. They spend their time with like-minded people in their community who support their proactive healthy lifestyles. They volunteer and give back to the community.
What the citizens of all three areas, known as Blue Zones, have in common:
- They are active every day from morning to night.
- They are very socially engaged.
- They eat a largely plant based diet.
- They don’t smoke.
- They celebrate and respect their aged family members.
- They put family first and surround themselves with friends, all of whom have a similar lifestyle and sense of purpose.
With our American lifestyles, we’re not likely to raise sheep or grow our own foods, but we can take some lessons from our wise and worldly neighbors. To live healthier– eat nutritiously, be physically active, drink moderately, be socially connected, spend time in nature, maintain a healthy weight and don’t smoke and you might just add those 12 lost years back into your own lifespan.
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The Secrets of Long Life. http://www.bluezones.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Nat_Geo_LongevityF.pdf
How to live to be 100+. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100/transcript?language=en
Life Expectancy. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/life-expectancy.htm
Blue Zones. https://www.bluezones.com/about-blue-zones/